— By Andrew Johnson, Editor
I have a love-hate relationship with cattails. I love ’em because pheasants love them, especially as temperatures dip and snow flies across most of pheasant country. But I hate ’em at the same time, because staring at a large, tangled mess of cattails in mid-December gives me heartburn.
When I’m hunting late-season roosters in my home state of South Dakota, a sea of cattails next to a food source is usually a dynamite location that’s likely holding more than a rooster or two, but I also know the amount of legwork it will take to get them out. The reward is always worth the effort, though, as it’s hard to rival the heart-pounding action a close-flushing rooster provides as it bursts skyward, tailfeather waggling, from its wintry hideaway.
Winter habitat — cattails, cane, shrubs, willows, tree strips and even food plots — is an essential piece of the habitat puzzle across a majority of pheasant range, and most hunters understand that pheasants flock toward these winter habitat types as the season wears on. However, once pheasant season ends and hunters hang up their vests for the year, it’s easy to forget that the birds — and all other wildlife — have to endure another two or three months of whatever Old Man Winter decides to throw at them.
With that in mind, here’s a look at why winter cover matters and what to look for whether you’re scouting for a place to hunt or thinking of enhancing a property you own with some high-quality habitat.
Why It Matters
It’s hard to argue the fact that nesting cover is the most critical habitat factor when it comes to pheasant production each year. But, last I checked, adult pheasants need to survive winter before they can worry about breeding or finding a spot to nest when spring finally arrives.
“Winter is super important for the birds and can obviously have a huge impact on the population,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “In the past we’ve seen it in places where if we have a really bad winter we can lose up to 90 percent of the population.”
While winter weather is often perceived by many hunters to be more devastating than spring weather, Bogenschutz said that’s not always the case as far as pheasants are concerned.
“As a wildlife manager, your goal is always to minimize lows and maximize the highs,” he said. “We can manage for a bad winter, but if you get a spring rain at the wrong time, for example, as a manager there’s nothing else you can do for the birds — you can’t give ‘em umbrellas. We have more of an ability to manage for a bad winter than a bad spring and have some kind of impact by keeping more birds alive.”
Winter is a relative experience across pheasant country, as a North Dakota winter is typically far different than winter in southern Iowa or Kansas. As a result, Bogenschutz said suitable winter cover for pheasants could be defined as any block of habitat that’s sturdy enough to stand up to the most severe winter a specific area could experience.
“In the north and the Prairie Pothole Region, or when you think about the Dakotas, cattails are the classic winter cover,” he said. “Further south, it’s more of the shrubby, conifer, switchgrass types of cover. I’ve seen giant ragweed, where if it’s in a big enough patch, that can be excellent winter cover, too, but you typically don’t see those in big blocks.”
And finding big blocks of suitable winter cover has grown into a big problem for pheasants trying to survive harsh winters, said Matt O’Connor, team coordinator for Habitat Forever, a subsidiary of Pheasant Forever. O’Connor lives in Iowa, but his work has taken him to most places pheasants call home.
“When I look at the changes I’ve seen over my career, that’s what stands out, because winter cover was never a limiting factor back in the late 70s, early 80s,” O’Connor said. “That’s all changed because we’ve just lost enough of it over the years, and what’s left has become so fragmented. Just think of those big cattail sloughs that were once part of the farm and people generally just let them be. Then, it became much more important to farm or hay them or burn them during a dry year. More and more of them disappeared in places you would have never dreamed of, so it’s getting harder than it used to be for birds to find those big blocks of winter cover.”
The fragmentation of habitat across the landscape is an important factor to consider, because where winter cover is in relation to food sources is critically important for pheasant survival.
“As managers we try to keep the bedroom, living room and kitchen all in proximity to one another,” Bogenschutz said. “Birds shouldn’t have to move far if conditions get bad, but sometimes it might take them a day to locate the good winter cover in the area.”
Finding food in the winter, especially if it’s buried beneath ice or snow, is a business decision birds have to make every day. They need to determine if it’s worth burning the energy to travel and scratch for food, all while risking exposure not only to the elements, but also to predation.
What to Look For
So, beyond proximity to a food source, what else makes for suitable winter cover?
For starters, O’Connor said bigger is always better because winter cover has to provide protection on four fronts — from wind, precipitation, temperatures and predators. If an area is too small, like a grassy waterway through a crop field or a single row of trees along a field edge, it’s likely to fill in with snow. Skinny places also reduce the ability of pheasants to hide or run from predators.
“If I’m talking about great winter cover, I’m talking about cattail sloughs that are 20 to 40 acres on up to a quarter section,” he said. “Cattails are No. 1 because of the thermal protection they provide, but thick, native grass stands are second.”
Bogenschutz agreed, saying large, dense stands of warm-season grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem that can also stand up to most average winter conditions are a great place to start. Bogenschutz said he even actually prefers switchgrass to cattails at times, especially if winter snowfall totals are typically low or mostly nonexistent.
“If I have 40-acre plot, I’m probably going to plant 30 of it in nesting cover with a native mix that includes a lot of forbs,” he said. “On the other 10 acres, I’d put in 5-7 acres of switchgrass and a 3-acre food plot on the downwind side so all the nesting cover can act as a windbreak.”
Speaking of food plots, sturdy annuals such as corn and milo can actually serve a secondary purpose as great winter cover, but not all food plots are created equal according to O’Connor. Most food plots are convenient to hunt, but O’Connor said as tough as it is for some land managers to understand, harder-to-hunt food plots benefit pheasants long after the season’s closing bell rings.
“So often food plots turn into shooting plots,” he said. “They can be great loafing and winter cover as long as they’re not a 35-foot-wide strip that runs a half-mile. I’d rather they be planted in a block that covers 10 acres. A block like that might be a pain to hunt for nine out of 10 years, but the one year when that really bad winter hits it’ll make the other nine years worth it.”
Shrubs and trees can also have the potential to provide crucial winter habitat, and when talking about tree strips, the magic number both Bogenschutz and O’Connor mentioned was eight — that tree strips needed to be at least eight rows wide to help pheasant survive the nastiest winters.
“The general recommendation is eight rows — four rows of conifers, four rows of shrubs — to stand up to the worst winter,” Bogenschutz said. “If you have conifers on the upwind side, then it’s best to have two rows of shrubs about 15 yards out from the conifers to act as a living snow fence. That way the snow won’t fully fill in the four rows of conifers.”
In addition to providing relief from winter weather, wider — not taller — tree strips also help cut down on predation, O’Connor said.
“We find when tree strips get down to three or four rows, predators are more likely to target them,” he said. “A nice eight- to 10-row planting can be great winter habitat, but some conifers, like white pines, can grow too much and become a predator trap. Over the years I’ve had old-timers get really mad at me, and they’ll talk about the pines and how great they are. But after 40 years, those big white pines aren’t pheasant habitat anymore — they’re great-horned owl habitat.”
In addition to cattails, dense stands of native grasses and tree strips, O’Connor also said other woody winter cover is also worth noting, especially if it’s adjacent to or in the same habitat complex as heavier, thermal cover such as cattails.
“You can’t deny farmstead shelterbelts or a big American plum thicket — you can’t hardly beat those because they’re great for loafing and winter cover,” he said. “They might not provide great thermal cover, but birds will be in those shrubby types of cover all day in the wintertime.”
Not a Luxury
A few years ago a polar vortex descended on the Dakotas in early December. Long stretches of subzero temps are nothing new in the Upper Midwest, but for a spell like that to hover over the region that early in the winter was unique.
Cold as it was, I still went pheasant hunting, thinking I’d have the entire countryside to myself. I was right for the most part, as the only company I had in the field that day was the old farmer who had given me permission to hunt a few cattail sloughs scattered across his cornfields. He flagged me down from the cab of his tractor as he was out feeding cattle and asked if I needed a shot of coffee.
As we sat in his shop, the weather was, of course, the topic at hand. He was worried about his cows; I joked that I hoped the birds wouldn’t freeze.
“The cold alone doesn’t kill these birds,” he said, thoughtfully turning his coffee cup in his hands. “It’s the snow and ice that gets ‘em.”
He’s right. Freezing temperatures alone rarely have any impact on a pheasant population. However, an extended onslaught of frigid temps, howling winds and significant precipitation (snow or ice) can spell disaster for pheasant populations without nearby access to suitable winter habitat.
Truth is, most winters rarely get that bad. Sure, a blizzard or two might roll on through and cause havoc for a few days, but for the most part, really bad winters — killer winters — only come around once every few years. But they do come around, and that’s why high-quality winter habitat isn’t a luxury for pheasants. It’s a necessity.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Pheasants Forever Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
About the Author: Andrew Johnson is editor of Outdoor Forum and a frequent contributor to Pheasants Forever. Follow @OutdoorForumMag on Twitter.